How Pixar Revived the ‘Cars’ Franchise on a Streaming Budget for ‘Cars on the Road’

Filmmakers Steve Purcell and Brian Fee reveal secrets of the new Disney+ Pixar shorts

Cars on the Road

Pixar’s “Cars” have circled back around.

“Cars on the Road,” a connection of interlocking shorts that just premiered on Disney+ as part of the Disney+ Day festivities, follows Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as they embark on a cross-country road trip for Mater’s sister’s wedding. Along the way they check into a haunted house, join the circus and cross paths with bigfoot. The shorts are incredibly charming and fit perfectly within the already-established “Cars” universe.

TheWrap spoke with Steve Purcell, who wrote every episode and directed three of the nine shorts and Brian Fee, who directed three of the shorts (and directed the very underrated “Cars 3”). Purcell and Fee told us about reusing characters from the “Cars” movies, creating stop-motion animation in CGI and how a surf guitar helped soften a ghostly visitation.

Where did the idea for “Cars on the Road” come from?

Steve Purcell: Well, if you know me at all, you know that I love road trips. And so, road trips loom large in my life. The road trip thing is something that was great to get to see through in this series.

While mapping out, will undoubtedly be the first of 800 “Cars on the Road” shorts, what were your priorities?

Brian Fee: From the first time I heard that we had an opportunity to do something for Disney+, we didn’t know if it was going to be series or what. It could be whatever it wanted to be. And Steve pitched the idea that became “Cars on the Road,” with the road trip and every episode, a crazy new thing. And it just felt so funny. I laughed so hard just hearing about it. For me, it was just like, How do I help bring this to life and make it as entertaining as possible, because that is what it was when I heard it. There was so much potential for entertainment. No filler. It was just one gold nugget after another. And so, entertainment is what I was chasing on this, myself.

Steve Purcell: Part of the goal along the way is how do we make each other laugh? How do we make Pete Docter laugh? How do we surprise the audience? How do we make sure we’re true to the characters as well, that we don’t throw the characters out, keep everything that people know about the franchise, but give it some more room to play. And try some new things that maybe we haven’t tried before.

Brian Fee: Or even break our own rules.

Stylistically, each one is very different than the last. How hard was that to push that through?

Steve Purcell: I guess the question going into it was like, Can we do everything we want to do? Because in the “Road Rumblers” episode, there are a lot of characters and we’re working on a streaming budget and we’re being more strategic, and can we do all the lighting that we want to do? And we ended up getting everything we wanted because we had such great professionals to work with, that we were able to find ways to make everything happen and give us a high quality of end result.

I imagine there was some recycling of assets.

Brian Fee: We stole and modified everything we could in what we call “the back lot,” which we honestly, to some point, we’ll do that on any project. And so that the money and time could be spent where it matters the most. We certainly had characters and sets that were all brand new. But when it didn’t matter as much, we did try to modify existing assets. And that is how we got what we got on story.

Steve Purcell: What’s great about this world is there’s a million characters that you didn’t get a good look at in some other movie. There’s a lot there to work with. You don’t feel like it’s recycling so much. It feels like oh, we’re just making use of characters that didn’t get their due. And we make them into a full-fledged feature hero character.

Brian Fee: And a new paint job. There are lots of different ways to create variation, even within those characters.

There have been so many “Cars” shorts before. Was there an ethos to how to differentiate these from what had come before?

Brian Fee: We had a feel, I think, we had a target, meaning the movies are very grounded. The movies are almost more realistic and grounded in how we animate the characters. The shorts that were previous to us were maybe a lot looser, more cartoony, almost, if you will. We wanted for this series, we wanted to find the middle ground.

And what was driving that was the subject matter. What was driving that effect is we’re treating McQueen like he’s Don Knots in the middle of a haunted house. We want to be able to get as much entertainment out of that moment. If it means relaxing, let the animator be a little more cartoony in a particular moment, we won’t allow for that. We did on our own behind-the-scenes, we did find our own little language and our own way to navigate the tone of the animation.

Steve Purcell: Amazing how often we had referenced Don Knotts to the animation group. We were wondering, do they even know who Don Knotts is? Master of the scare take.

One of my favorite things is in the first episode the faux stop-motion animation. How did you achieve that?

Steve Purcell: That was a puzzle because going into it, it’s like, how do you direct this? How do you direct animators that are doing CG animation to do something that looks less than. And also, I never wanted it to look bad. I didn’t want it to look like something that was cheap. I wanted to look just nostalgic and of that spirit of the Ray Harryhausen, “Mighty Joe Young” or “King Kong” or those things. I wanted to feel like it came from another time. And the conceit of the show, that episode fit that because Mater goes into this fantasy, and so it actually makes sense. It feels, actually, like the little clip he watched in the lobby. Where he says, “That’s freaky to me.”

And so he goes into this thing and the whole place looks like that. But the animators were able to accomplish that look pretty quickly. They found a way to create that look, so you believed the dropped frames and it felt very handmade and it still felt dynamic in the chase scene. And then some of it wasn’t always the same frame rate. Sometimes there were more frames when we needed them and sometimes were less. When the dinosaur look into your face or something like that. So, it was very customized for the shot, beautiful.

Brian Fee: The part where McQueen and Mater looked more normal, like a real actor would be, in one of those Harryhausen films. But when the dinosaur picks up the actor, now the actor’s a tiny little puppet. We even sought that out.

Steve Purcell: I was always pitching that. Like, “In the movie, when the dinosaur grabs the guy, now he’s a stop motion thing. You’ve got to get him to move like that!”

A friend told me that their son watched it and they were a little scared by the ghost episode. Was part of the intent of these new shorts to amp up the intensity a little bit more?

Steve Purcell: I actually had a note from Pete [Docter] that the haunted house one was a little too scary early on, and it was. We just went for it and the music was super scary. And it’s like, Okay, we don’t want to put off part of our audience right off the bat. We actually looked at the episode and I talked to Jake Monaco, our composer. And I started thinking about when I was watching haunted house movies when I was a kid, it was “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.” It was “Munsters, Go Home!” There was something in that era that was like surf guitar boing, boing, boing. And we looked for that aspect for the music and it totally took the edge off and made it fun without being terrifying to a younger audience. And I love the flavor of it in episode. Even the guy at the end, totally ’60s surf rock, haunted house monster.

“Cars on the Road” is on Disney+ now.